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Kodak Box Camera FAQ

These details refer to the "classic" box camera, usually made from wood, cardboard and metal to varying degrees, which, by definition are box-shaped. Cameras with bellows are considered to be "folding" cameras and can differ sufficiently from model to model to need to be considered on an individual basis (ie. you may need the instruction book for your camera). Plastic-bodied cameras again come in a multitude of designs so are not covered specifically here, though many of the principles will apply, especially for the more basic models.

Opening the camera

Kodak box cameras, which, for the purposes of this page, includes Brownie and Hawk-Eye models, mostly come in one of two basic designs.
  • Firstly, those with a flap or door on the back, usually retained by an obvious spring or sliding latch, where the "insides" need to be removed from the box for film loading.
  • Secondly, those where the front section of the camera slides out, complete with film mechanism, from the box.
The "trick", for want of a better term, on almost all cameras of this type, is that the film-wind knob or key needs to be extracted from the take-up spool or mechanism before the camera will come apart. The winder will usually rotate only one way, often indicated by an arrow, and may be stiff, so it may require a degree of coaxing to enable one to pull it away from the body, usually about 1/4-3/8" or so, (5-10mm). On very early Brownie box cameras, and probably some others, the whole film-wind key mechanism is removed, the supporting flange being rotated to unlatch it before lifting it out. There are always "exceptions to prove the rule", the UK-made Six-20 Brownie being one example where the winding knob does not extract.

If there are no obvious latches, such as on the "Target" Brownies and some others, the front strap-lug is usually the key. It doubles as a sprung-loaded plunger which needs to be lifted to enable the front of the camera to be slid out of the box, once the film-wind knob has been dis-engaged as above.

What film do I need?

Film size is usually either 116, 616, 120, or 620, though some larger cameras were made, and a few smaller models, usually using 127 film. 116, 616 or the larger film formats, such as 124 or 130, are no longer readily available, though there may be a few sources for these films. See the Hints'n'Tips section of this website. A discussion on the differences between "No.2" cameras, "No.2A" cameras etc. can also be found in that section. Most cameras taking 620 film have this reflected in their name, such as "Six-20 Brownie Junior" or the German variation "Brownie 620". 620 film is no longer available from the major manufacturers but 120 film is still readily available, from the local camera shop if not in the supermarket, and it's not too difficult to use 120 film in a 620 camera, see "using 620 film" in Hints'n'Tips section. Black-&-white 127 film is still manufactured in Croatia under the Efke brand, though distribution is patchy. Jessops in the UK have marketed this film under their own brand-name.

Most Brownie and Hawk-Eye cameras with a No.2 designation, as in "No.2 Rainbow Hawk-Eye", take 120 size film, so there are no problems with availability. Some cameras include the word "cartridge" in the model name. This is because a roll of film was considered to look like a shotgun cartridge and also to help differentiate between similar cameras that used plates or film packs. Note at this point that a "No.2 Brownie Model C", for instance, is a different camera, taking a different film size, to a "No.2C Brownie". In this case the "Model C" designation being one of a series of "No.2 Brownie" cameras that were manufactured from 1901-1933.

If it's classic black-and-white snap-shots you are wanting to take, the advent of modern chromogenic C41-compatible black & white films means many of the older "snap-shot" cameras can give surprisingly good results in a wide range of lighting conditions, as this type of film will give useable-density negatives when exposed between 50 - 3200 ASA on the same roll, with no adjustment needed in the development. For the less-technical, that means it doesn't have to be bright sunshine for you to take good pictures with your box camera.

What is the aperture and/or shutter speed for my box camera?

A contemporary Kodak Ltd. publication quotes the aperture in a "simple" camera as between f/11 and f/16. For those Kodak box cameras with adjustable apertures, usually on a pull-up strip, this would be the largest opening (with the strip pushed all the way in), the smaller being between f/16 and f/22. In the event of three apertures, the smallest will be one stop lower again. The shutter speed will be around 1/30-1/60th second. The usually recommended film speed for these older cameras is 100 ASA, though this is probably twice as fast as the "normal" film that was available when they were built, so more use of the smaller apertures will be made than when the cameras were new. Let's not be too critical here, the shutter on your camera is unlikely to be performing at the same speed as when it was built, may not operate at a consistent speed, and possibly wasn't built to very exacting standards in the first place. Modern negative film has remarkable latitude, especially when compared with that available 50-100 years ago, so a stop or so of over or under exposure will not usually be a problem. If your camera is of the single aperture variety, believe me, it will work. The negatives may be a bit denser than "normal" but they will print or scan fine. Indeed, Eastman Kodak's own recommendation, in an early edition of their "How to make Good Pictures", was "When in doubt, over-expose". This has been reflected down the years in the old adage "expose for the shadows and let the highlights look after themselves". If you are still not convinced, obtain a yellow "cloud" filter (for black and white) to suit your camera and fit it. This will reduce the effective exposure by one stop and improve the contrast. Remember, probably thousands of single-use cameras, with no adjustments at all, are used every day, under all conditions, and they return perfectly adequate snap-shots almost every time. Having said that, if you do have two or more apertures available, using the widest for duller days, the next smaller for sunny days and the smallest, where available, for sea-side or snow scenes, will maximise your exposure potential.

The minimum working distance for most box cameras, ie. those with a fixed-focus lens, is about 8-10ft. Some models have a built-in "portrait" lens, usually for about 3-4ft., for others there was often an optional push-on "portrait attachment" available. When working at these closer distances, the depth-of-field on these cameras is quite limited, so fairly accurate measurement is needed, especially if using the widest aperture. A piece of string, cut to length and kept with the camera, can be useful in these circumstances.

Bear in mind that, when these cameras were built, a contact print was the norm, that is to say the final prints were the same size as the negatives. Although most box-camera negatives will stand a degree of enlargement, say to 6x4" "enprint" size, critical examination of the prints will show up the limited capabilities of the simple lenses fitted in many of these models.

How do I hold and use my box camera?

Box cameras are almost invariably used at waist-level, those with a single viewfinder usually taking a "portrait-format" or vertical picture, those with two viewfinders being held appropriately for either a "portrait-format" or "landscape-format" picture.

These cameras are classified as 'snapshot' cameras. A basic definition of this would be "sun over the shoulder of the operator, from two hours after sunrise until two hours before sunset".

The actual loading of the camera can vary slightly between models, but basically, the new roll of film is fitted in the side of the camera away from the winding key or knob, then the paper backing is threaded into the empty spool, which is then fitted so that it will engage with the winding key or knob when the camera is re-assembled. An illustrated page covering this procedure may be found here. With the camera closed, the film is wound until the number "1" is visible in the red window on the back of the camera. The camera is now ready to make the first exposure. After each picture is taken, it is recommended to immediately wind the film to the next exposure, both so that the camera is ready for the next picture opportunity and to obviate the risk of a double-exposure.

If your camera has a cover for the "little red window", this should only be opened for the winding of the film and kept closed at all other times when the camera is loaded. On many older cameras, the "red window" may well have faded to orange, so extra care will need to be taken. The best solution is probably to affix some extra transparent red filter material inside the camera. In either case, the red window should not be exposed to bright sunlight with modern panchromatic or colour films, so if a window cover is not fitted to your camera, some other means of protection should be considered. An obvious choice would be opaque tape, but this runs the risk of damaging the camera covering, so a piece of "Blu-tack", "Plasticene" or "Play-Do" is usually a better choice. Whenever the red window is exposed, for the purpose of winding the film, keeping the camera in the shade of your body should be sufficient to eliminate any risk of fogging the film.

The shutter control on many earlier Kodak box cameras is of the 'flip-flop' type. Where most "conventional" or modern cameras have a shutter-button which, once pressed for an exposure, then returns to its initial position when released, many early cameras, especially of a more basic specification, featured a shutter control which was pushed one way for the first exposure and then the other way for the next ... hence the term flip-flop. Although the temptation may be there to return the contol to it's original position after taking the picture, it is important to only operate this control once for each exposure unless the "time" facility is in use, in which case the control will need to be returned to close the shutter. Remember to dis-engage the time release facility after use to prevent spoiling subsequent exposures.

Film flatness

Most box cameras do not have a pressure plate to hold the film flat, relying on the tension of the film to do this. Inevitably, if the camera is unused for a while, this tension may relax, possibly causing the film to lie unevenly across the film gate. To obviate this, it can be worth while to not completely wind the film to the next exposure, taking up the final few millimetres to centre the numbers in the red window just before taking each picture.

When the final exposure (usually the 8th) has been made, the film is wound right through to the end, until the backing paper disappears from the red window. The exposed film, now on the winding-knob side of the camera can now be carefully removed, sealed with the supplied adhesive tape and taken for processing, though to complete the "total experience" you may care to consider doing this yourself.

Marcy Merril, (the "Silver Nitrate Queen"), has an illustrated page on the loading of a box camera here on her Junk Store Cameras site.

How much is it worth?

Most box cameras, especially Kodaks, which includes Brownies and Hawk-Eyes, were probably made literally by the million and as such there are still a lot around. The chances are that the dusty black Brownie you've found in the attic/basement/cupboard or wherever is only worth a few pounds/dollars. Coloured cameras have an aesthetic attraction in their own right and are usually worth somewhat more, in good condition.

Like many, I feel the original handle/strap, which is usually leather, is an integral part of the camera. As these often break and get lost, a camera with its original handle is rather more attractive than one without, especially when, as in some cases, the only model designation of the camera is on the strap itself.

Cameras that are really clean, especially if in the original box with the instruction book, do have some collector value and need to be evaluated on an individual basis. Whatever one feels about "on-line" auction sites such as eBay, they do have some value, in as much as they give a good idea of the availablity of different models and of how much people are actually paying for them, which is usually a better guide than the often arbitary price tag on a camera in the local "antique" shop.

However, some box cameras are uncommon, indeed, even rare, and may have fairly significant value, in good condition, to a specialist collector, but, as always, there is the need to find an interested party with the cash available before one can benefit from one's good fortune. Again, an on-line auction such as eBay is likely to give the best exposure, should you wish to sell.

More information

Hopefully this page will help a few people without having to wait for my answer to their e-mail, though any queries are always welcome. If you feel the need for an instruction book for your camera take a look in the "manuals"-section on this website. If it's not available for download try Oldtimer Cameras Ltd, they will almost certainly be able to supply a photocopy of any instruction booklet you require.
Oldtimer Cameras Ltd.,
PO Box 28A,
WD6 4SY (England).
See also
  Hints'n'Tips section
  Where to get film

  index cameras brownie
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